…the women who served…

I’ve always wondered about these ladies mentioned in Exodus 38.8:

He made the basin of bronze with its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting.

What did they do? Do we have here a stratum of female functionaries associated with Tabernacle and Temple? (And no, I don’t think they were merely temple prostitutes, as if the only possible religious value of a woman is as a sacred whore!) Why do none of the usual suspects mention them? (Nor do I think it’s just because they were men!) Would such have existed even in Herodian times? Does anyone know of any mention of them in rabbinic sources?

And last, but not least, why did they have so many mirrors…?

Thoughts on the Tel Zayit abecedary

Or should that be abgad? Nevertheless, there is an obvious interest in this building stone from Tel Zayit, now playing at a blog near you. While the importance of finding any literate inscription from the ancient world is a cause for celebration, I’d like to state my reasons for caution in making any conclusions regarding this particular inscription vis-à-vis biblical historiography.

1.) Regarding the skill of the writer:
I don’t see that anyone should deny that this was written by a scribe, whether a newly trained one or one of hoary experience. Throughout the history of writing in the ancient near east, we know that scribes did the overwhelmingly majority of all writing. However, this particular inscription appears to be scratched onto a stone with a completely unprepared surface. You try scratching, with a bronze or iron stylus, a modern alphabet into rock like that and see how far you get without slips, mistakes, and a result that resembles much more the scrawl of a juvenile scribal pupil than your typical (hopefully) elegant penmanship.

2.) Regarding the purpose of the inscription:
Now, if my understanding of the reportage of the find is correct, the stone was inscribed prior to its placement in the wall, as the entire inscription was not able to be read in that location. In the wall above this inscribed stone was another non-native stone of onyx. These were situated so as to be opposite the entrance to a room, the function of which is indeterminate. I think the only two conclusions possible to draw from this placement of two unusual stones in one prominent place is that they are there for either a.) apotropaic, or b.) decorative. For case a.), the apotropaic usage, those placing the stone there may have seen the inscription and recognized it as writing, but not known what it said, if they were illiterate, and perhaps dealt with it as a kind of amulet, displaying a somewhat primitive awe of writing. I find that more likely than that an abecedary was considered apotropaic. For case b.), the decorative, well, interesting scribbles on rocks can be decorative, I suppose. A big chunk of onyx in the wall sounds rather nice. But again, this doesn’t sound as though it indicates literacy on the part of the people who placed the stone in the wall. For my part, I consider the abecedary inscription on the rock to have possibly been scribal practice, perhaps practicing to do an inscription on some similar stone, now lost. Certainly a 40 pound stone is not a very practical practice tablet for scribal teacher or student! This stone, found on the site by an illiterate builder, undoubtedly generated enough interest for it to be considered as striking as the chunk of onyx above.

3.) Phoenician or Hebrew?
Here lies the crux, and the great interest in the inscription. The answer can come from two directions: paleography or archaeology.
a.) Paleography: To be perfectly honest, I think that we need a greater selection of data for comparison, a greater selection which has simply not been discovered yet, indeed may never be discovered due to preservation issues. This especially in the case of earliest Hebrew, and how it diverges from the more northern Phoenician, and how specifically it would differ from southern, strictly Canaanite (southern coastal Palestinian) inscriptional letter forms (of which I recall none, though I hope someone will correct me, if I’m wrong on that). This Tel Zayit inscription (if Hebrew), the Gezer calendar, and the Izbet Sartah inscription do not appear to be in a trained hand. Using them as paleographical reference points (even as nice as the Gezer calendar hand is) doesn’t seem as wise as using something clearly done by a full-fledged professional scribe under ideal conditions, like the Ahirom of Byblos sarcophagus or the Mesha of Moab stele. It’s all unfortunately to our loss that the scribes of Canaan and Israel appear to have favored papyrus over clay for their documentation, as the majority of the exemplars from which a truly representative set of data could’ve been found.
b.) Archaeology: From the reportage, apparently there’s evidence of a change in material culture with the particular layer of occupation to which the building with this inscription is assigned. The earlier layers indicate connections with the coast, while the inscription building’s layer displays connections to the hills. That’s quite interesting. At this point, I have more questions at this point than suggestions. Is the site large enough to have had the resources to be considered strong enough to have made such switches of allegiance on its own terms? If not, is it not logical that either a coalition of eastern towns or a larger eastern city took it from under the hegemony of a coastal coalition or city? (That is, after all, the former, and some would argue current, way of the world.) Does such a change of culture indicate or require an ethnic change? How clear is the connection to hill country and the difference from coastal? Could it be, after all is said and done, that the two lines of evidence, paleographical and archaeological, reinforce one another in this hill country connection, a hill country which we probably have seen called Israel prior to this time (in Merneptah’s stele; I say “probably” because the precise location is debatable, though Chris very well describes the standard reading and possibilities), and know is called Israel from later inscriptions (Mesha’s stele, the Tel Dan stele) and the descendants of that culture’s own writings?

Beyond all of this and the initial excitement and all the flutter, I await full and exhaustive publication. No doubt several of my questions/objections will be answered, and those of others. All talk of “nail in the coffin” seems really quite premature.

And there was no more Sea.

And there was no more Sea.

VOICES from above and from beneath,
  Voices of creation near and far,
Voices out of life and out of death,
    Out of measureless space,
  Sun, moon, star,
    In oneness of contentment offering praise.

Heaven and earth and sea jubilant,
  Jubilant all things that dwell therein ;
Filled to fullest overflow they chant,
    Still roll onward, swell,
  Still begin
    Never flagging praise interminable.

Thou who must fall silent in a while,
  Chant thy sweetest, gladdest, best, at once ;
Sun thyself to-day, keep peace and smile ;
    By love upward send
    Accounting love thy lot and love thine end.

Christina Rossetti, before 1893.

Hyperbole in Merneptah Stele?

Jim West says it’s not so! Well, he actually only brings into question the well-known line “the people of Israel, his seed is not.” He notes that while most accept the latter part of the line as hyperbole, the first part of the line is not accepted as hyperbole. One has to wonder how a name of a people can be considered hyperbole, but that’s another issue. He proposes taking a look at the line as perhaps not including any hyperbole at all. Just for fun, let’s look at the whole stele that way, without hyperbole or metaphor! Follow along at home, kids, with ANET 376-378!

So, in this reading, Merneptah is actually a big, strong bull, ruling Egypt under the god Horus. This bull struck nine bows (how weird is that?), and his name is repeated forever (by someone, how boring for him or her!). Furthermore, all the countries in the world knew about Merneptah, since his accomplishments were published in every land (even Antarctica!), apparently because he was such a pretty bull in battle! But he was also the sun itself! How mysterious! And he evaporated stormclouds from Egypt! What a useful bull-sun! Also, all the necks of the Egyptians were apparently stuck underneath a mountain of copper (I think someone on CNN said they found this mountain of copper, which makes this story TRUE!), which sounds quite awkward. The bull-sun Merneptah obligingly freed them from this uncomfortable predicament. One wonders, were their bodies sticking outward from the mountain or inward? (I expect there will be a monograph published by Brill on this!) Did you know the city of Memphis had a heart? Well it did, and the bull-sun Merneptah made it happy! Also, billions of people were unable to breathe before King Merneptah the bull-sun was seen by them! How utterly helpful! He also put eternal fear into the Meshwesh tribe, so that they would never attack Egypt again, like even about fifty years later in a coalition of tribes attacking lower Egypt! So there! And it goes on about the divine paternity of the bull-sun-king Merneptah, and his divine throne. Apparently there were several gods who clamored to be his father. How does one test for that? Did Egyptian gods have DNA? And there’s a little song at the end:

The princes are prostrate, saying: “Mercy!”
Not one raises his head among the Nine Bows.
Desolation is for Tehenu; Hatti is pacified;
Plundered is the Canaan with every evil;
Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer;
Yanoam is made as that which does not exist;
Israel is laid waste, his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow for Egypt!
All lands together, they are pacified
Everyone who was restless has been bound
by the king of Upper and Lower Egypt

So, although one wonders how the nine bows could have heads, none of them raised them. Also, Tehenu/Libya became completely desolate then (which must be why it’s a desert today!). The Hittite empire was at peace, contrary to any and all reports to the contrary! “The Canaan”, that is, the city of Gaza, was suddenly made a place without evil! Someone also picked up and carried the city Ashkelon away (where to, one wonders), and grabbed Gezer (ouch!), with, quite obviously, absolutely enormous hands. Yanoam ceased to exist, contrary to all reports and all archaeological discoveries. The people of Israel were all made skinny, I suppose, and they lost their one and only seed. Mrs. Hurru lost her dear husband Mr. Egypt (how sad!). And there was world peace, and all the people who just couldn’t sit still were tied up somehow by the handless but marvelous bull-sun-king Merneptah!

Ahem. So, I think we all actually recognize that hyperbole and metaphor are rife in the Merneptah stele, however fun it might be to read it otherwise. It is much more likely that in a document full of such hyperbole and metaphor that the statement “his seed is not” does not refer solely metaphorically to the elimination of all offspring and the potential to create more, or literally to the loss of a single particular seed that belonged to this people, but rather hyperbolically and metaphorically to the killing of a number of, or at the very least some kind of victory over the “people of Israel” in battle. The case may also be that, as being located in a part of Hurru/Canaan, these “people of Israel” may not have even fought Merneptah, but they were included in the hymn as further victorious hyperbole: “all the peoples of Hurru were conquered by His Majesty (l.p.h.)” etc, ad nauseam.

The issue of why this is not mentioned in the preserved documents from the Israelite side is perhaps no more than the silence of a shameful ignominious defeat. I would also suggest that such a battle, set during the period depicted in the book of Judges, simply didn’t fit the pattern [Israelite disobedience > Non-Israelite local oppressor > Israelite local deliverer > Israelite local peace] which is followed throughout the book. The overlordship of Egypt throughout the entire period of Judges is in fact never mentioned, but then neither are the later overlordships of Moab and Aram Damascus over the Gilead, and the early overlordship of Assyria over Israel in the wake of Qarqar. Yes, another possibility is that the documents were not written until such a much later time that all genuine historical data was long lost. But this latter solution presents no more a priori likelihood than the others. We can’t make assumptions on what battles should or shouldn’t be included, since we don’t share the same worldview or mindset of the original authors of any of these documents. To do otherwise, to claim otherwise, is rank anachronism and eisegesis.

It is only the particular framework of the historiographic model that the reader is immersed in which determines the amount of trust we grant to a given ancient document (whether me, Ken Ristau, Jim West, Joe Cathey, or Keith Whitelam). Some of us, like myself, find more than less historical reminiscence in the biblical writings, while others find less than more. Each of us, because of our presuppositional foundations and experience (years of training? years of reading?), has our own deeply ingrained stance, which may find others’ to be either uncritical (“fundamentalist”) or poor scholarship (Rainey: “In conclusion, Davies’ book deserves to be forgotten” JAOS 115/1: p 103). Neither historiographic model is wrong, per se. They have their established foundations and support from respective philosophies of history. It’s best to keep that in mind, especially in such discussions as these, which need us all to focus on detail in the texts, the primary sources, rather than broad charicature, inuendo, or outright insult in secondary and tertiary sources, which furthers our fund of knowledge not one whit. It’s not so hard to approach these discussions in good humour, as I did above, rather than curmudgeonly dismissal or vituperation, which only raises hackles and begins the cycle all over again. So, while the bickering goes back and forth (“he said,” “well, he said,” “oh yeah, well he said”), no knowledge is advanced, the discussion remains at a standstill, and no one is even remotely charmed by wit, edified by excellent argumentation, or even slightly encouraged to pay attention any more. So, at least for the sake of attracting more and various interested parties to share in such studies, let’s recognize the validity of the discussion and save all snarkiness, if at all, then solely for meeting in person sometime, when tone of voice and kindness of eye belie the harshness of these words flung heedlessly and harmfully.

Sun, Moon and Storms

A few days ago, I was reading the John H. Walton paper “Joshua 10:12-15 and Mesopotamian Celestial Omen Texts” (181-190 in Faith, Tradition & History, eds. A.R. Millard, J.K. Hoffmeier, and D.W. Baker) and came upon an interesting idea, quite different from Walton’s. First, the key verses, Joshua 10.12-13:

אז ידבר יהושע ליהוה
ביום תת יהוה את־האמרי
לפני בני ישראל
ויאמר לעיני ישראל
שמש בגבעונ דום
וירח בעמק אילון
ןידם השמש וירח עמד
עד־יקם גוי איביו
הלא־היא כתובה על־ספר הישר
ויעמד השמש בחצי השמים
ולא־אץ לבוא כיום תמים

The NRSV renders this:

On the day when the LORD gave the Amorites
over to the Israelites,
Joshua spoke to the LORD;
and he said in the sight of Israel,
“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,
and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.”
And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,
until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.
Is this not written in the Book of Jashar?
The sun stopped in midheaven,
and did not hurry to set for about a whole day.

Now typically this passage has been taken to indicate some kind of astronomical phenomenon, literally involving the sun and moon. Yet, just prior to this (and please don’t make me type any more Hebrew!), the saving miracle of this battle was described as large hailstones raining down on the fleeing enemy combatants (see vv. 9-11). Furthermore, v. 14 appears to indicate that the amazing part was not the miracle itself, but that the Lord acted upon the suggestion of Joshua.

An idea came to me upon reading an excerpt of a balag-lamentation, “He Is a Storm, At the Healing” lines 10-15, given by Walton:

The heavens continually rumbled,
the earth continually shook;
The sun lay at the horizon
The moon stopped still in the midst of the sky
In the sky the great lights disappeared
An evil storm … the nations
A deluge swept over the lands.

It appears to me that, similar to the Sumerian idiom, the request for and description of the Sun and Moon to דמם/עמד is an ancient Hebrew idiom for a sky-covering storm, which would stretch from horizon to horizon and cover both Sun and Moon. I’ll look into it more, of course, but it certainly is an interesting possibility.


(Wow, is this thing actually working? Hello?)


Welcome, reader, to my brand new blog, biblicalia. You might be able to tell from its name that the primary subject will be Biblical Studies (biblica), and other stuff (alia), including, but not limited to, Classics, Poetry, Eastern Orthodoxy, Assyriology, Early Christian Studies, Apocalypticism, Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, general and specific bibliophilia, not necessarily in that order, and all according to my opinion (which is, of course, always perfectly correct and beyond reproach).